18 Oct

Discussion meeting Wednesday 18 October 2017, 12:30 - 02:00 PM BST

The new US strategy on Afghanistan and South Asia: challenges and prospects

In the first of a new six-monthly series of IISS discussion meetings on key security trends in South Asia – in partnership with the Near East South Asia Centre (NESA) of the US National Defense University – the panel focused on ‘The new US strategy on Afghanistan and South Asia: challenges and prospects’. This provided policy-relevant perspectives from the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China.

John Wood, Associate Professor, NESA, highlighted that since President Donald Trump announced the ‘new’ US strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia on 21 August, many observers and pundits have attempted to analyse the strategy and fill in the contours given the lack of specific details in the speech. It is important to re-iterate the facts of the strategy as Trump had originally stated and as other US officials have elaborated. Namely, Trump emphasised a conditions-based approach, expectations for strong Pakistani actions against Taliban and Haqqani network safe-havens, and a request for India to increase non-military assistance to Afghanistan.

Trump explicitly stated the desire for Taliban reconciliation, but noted that ‘nobody knows if or when that will ever happen’.  Importantly, the US president also called on Afghans themselves to ‘do more’, including tackling corruption, improving governance, and conducting their own nation-building. It is this last point that is the linchpin for achieving durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. Without a strong and sustained commitment by the Afghans themselves, no US or international strategy can succeed.

Dr Roger Kangas, Academic Dean, NESA, explained that reactions within Afghanistan to the recently declared US strategy express a cautious sense of optimism.  There is an appreciation of the conditions-based approach, as opposed to the earlier time-bound policy.  Likewise, the opportunity for the US military to work more closely with the Afghan National Security Forces combat units could pay dividends.  However, there is some concern that these updates mask a policy that largely resembles previous efforts and say little in terms of the domestic, political and economic reform measures that need to be taken.

Neighbouring states such as Iran and Russia are looking at the recent US policy declaration with some scepticism. Not surprisingly, representatives and experts from these two countries tend to frame the US statement within standard rhetorical narratives. Therefore, both Tehran and Moscow continue to maintain hedging strategies when working with the different sides in the Afghan conflict.

Jack Gill, Adjunct Professor, NESA, stated that Washington’s new South Asia strategy is intended to clarify US commitment and reduce regional hedging. The 21 August strategy speech and recent events, however, demonstrate that the US policy conundrum vis-à-vis Pakistan remains: how to retain relations with an important state when that state is engaged in actions that directly undermine US interests and cost American lives. Although the language of the speech was blunt, the new strategy does not ‘blame Pakistan’ for all the problems of Afghanistan, and Washington has offered effusive praise for Pakistan’s role in the recent rescue of a Canadian-American family from the Taliban.

Pakistanis, on the other hand, object that the US ‘scapegoats’ Pakistan and does not acknowledge Pakistan’s losses in the fight against its domestic militants. Islamabad and Rawalpindi are especially suspicious of India’s role in Afghanistan as endorsed by the new US strategy. Pakistani reactions to reports of recent drone strikes along the Afghan–Pakistan border suggest that the drone issue could again impinge on US–Pakistan relations.

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, IISS Senior Fellow for South Asia, noted that the new US strategy provides India with an opportunity to build what is called its ‘ruthlessly pragmatic’ neighbourhood policy and intensify its strategic cooperation with Afghanistan. For the first time, a US president has publicly invited India to play a larger role in Afghanistan’s economic development. The India–Afghanistan ministerial-level strategic partnership council met on 11 September after a five-year hiatus. Security cooperation is to be strengthened through India’s enhanced training and equipping of Afghan security forces in India.

But New Delhi has emphasised that it will not send troops to Afghanistan. The government also remains wary of President Trump’s public concern that ‘tense relations’ between the two nuclear-armed regional powers – India and Pakistan – could spiral into conflict. India’s capacity for increasing economic support to Afghanistan remains limited, given that the two countries are not geographically contiguous and India cannot, for political and security reasons, transit trade through Pakistan.

Antoine Levesques, IISS Research Associate for South Asia, expected China to play a more ‘pro-active’ role in Afghanistan into 2018, foremost diplomatically. But this posture would be conditioned by security developments in the country; details within, or any evolutions of, the US strategy’s framework; the outcome of Trump’s planned visit to Beijing; and China’s willingness to take greater risks – including on promoting Afghan reconciliation.

Afghanistan would remain at most secondary in China’s broader foreign and security policymaking, just as implementation of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor and management of relations with India would continue to draw significantly from China’s political-diplomatic resources allocated as a whole to South Asia.

This event was chaired by Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia, IISS. It took place in the Lee Kuan Yew Conference Room at Arundel House, 6 Temple Place, London WC2R 2PG.

Dr Roger Kangas is the Academic Dean and a professor of Central Asian Studies at the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies, Washington DC. He has been an adviser to the Combatant Commands, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the US Air Force Special Operations School, USAID, and other US government agencies on issues relating to Central and South Asia, Russia and the South Caucasus.

John Wood is an Associate Professor at NESA. Prior to joining NESA, he served as the Senior Director for Afghanistan at the US National Security Council from 2007–2009, under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Jack Gill is an Adjunct Professor at NESA. He is a former US Army South Asia Foreign Area Officer, and has followed South Asian intelligence and policy issues since the mid-1980s while at the Pentagon and US Pacific Command. Gill’s writing has covered US-Indian military relations, the 1971 India-Pakistan war, the two countries’ 1986-87 ‘Brass Tacks’ crisis, and military operations during the 1999 Kargil conflict, among other topics.

Antoine Levesques is Research Associate for South Asia at the IISS, where his areas of interest include South Asian nuclear issues, South Asian policies towards China and political perspectives on Afghanistan post-2016.


Rahul Roy-Chaudhury

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury heads the South Asia programme at the IISS. He publishes on regional security and stability, provides select policy-relevant talks and briefings, and organises several ‘track 1.5’ meetings. These involve top South Asian government and intelligence officials on regional stability, nuclear doctrines and India’s foreign policy.

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Event details

Wednesday 18 October, 12.30–2pm BST
Arundel House, London
Dr Roger Kangas Academic Dean, Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies
John Wood, Associate Professor, NESA
Jack Gill, Adjunct Professor, NESA
Antoine Levesques, Research Associate for South Asia, IISS
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia, IISS